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Years of walking asphalt roads, cement sidewalks, wild flower meadows, and wooded trails in and around St. Louis, Missouri, often raised the question: Who had walked here before our country’s beginnings? Native Americans, of course, but did I know which tribes, their spirituality and traditions, and what had happened to them? Only one street sign, Osage, attests to their presence; the second, named after the Cherokee tribe, did not live in this area. So I began to poke around …

In 1804 Louis J. Bompart bought 1,600 acres of land, followed by two other later purchases by the Marshall and Gay families, in what now constitutes the county in which I live. Nowhere could I find out who the sellers were.

More research led to the semi-nomadic Osage tribe who had dominated present-day Missouri and the adjoining states. These people, like their counterparts suffered egregiously under the sixteenth-century French and Spanish land-grabbers, the profits to line their own coffers and sustain their wars of conquest overseas. So called contracts awarded to the tribes for such exchanges were as solid as the wind, and just as deadly as the killer diseases they left behind.

In 1830, President Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act. Outraged, the Cherokee brought this injustice for review to the Supreme Court, and Chief Justice John Marshall supported it. Yet, twenty thousand Osage in Missouri, and thousands elsewhere, were forcibly removed from their land, at gunpoint, to walk the Trail of Tears to earth-starved reservations in Oklahoma and Nebraska and Kansas.

So who sold the land to Louis J. Bompart that I’ve been living on for decades: Government agents? Immigrants from oppressed countries seeking freedom in the New World? Records go back only so far …

Across the wide swath of flaming maples, I glimpsed bloodied feet of the Choctaw, Muscogee, Chickasaw, Cherokees, and Seminole, five civilized tribes in the southeast, forced by our government to walk the Trail of Tears, between 1830 and 1850—their destination, the barren reservations in Oklahoma.

At the time, protesters lobbied, published, shouted out, lectured from pulpits and courtrooms, but the planters won. Cotton remained King, gobbling up nutrients from stolen lands, viewed as sacred by the tribes who had tended them. Such is our scarred history that greedily wants what it wants, but we are not alone.

The precedent of ethno-cleansing has fueled unspeakable atrocities throughout the world. With others, I cry, “Mercy!”

“That will be nine dollars and twenty-six cents with tax,” the saleslady said as she huddled in her sweater, its nappy edges covering her chapped knuckles. On the counter between us lay the coveted gray faux leather wallet, with plastic sleeves for pictures and a brass key chain on its side. Classmates in my new school had similar wallets; owning one would draw their friendship, so I had hoped.

Suddenly, my face blanched, my knees buckled. In my mittened hand, I clutched nine dollars and my ten-cent carfare home. I did not know about the tax. On a previous trip downtown, I’d noticed the wallet displayed in the store window of Three Sisters, checked its price, stole nine dollars from the pouch Dad had left for Mother’s household expenses, and planned my return to the store.

The saleslady caught my disappointment and thanked me for returning the wallet to the display shelf with the others. Still dismayed, I elbowed my way through other customers; their noise was deafening as I set down the wallet. But I could not leave. I had come so far and sorely needed my classmates’ attention on Monday when I climbed aboard the school bus. That was the way it was supposed to work.

It happened so fast: flash-flames scorched my body as I slipped the coveted wallet under my arm, buttoned my coat, and threaded my way to the door. I knew I was stealing, but it didn’t matter.

The following Monday morning, seated on the bus, I purposely placed the wallet on top of my books, but no one noticed.

Perhaps eleven years old at the time, I learned how easy it was steal, of little matter the guilt and shame. That I had sinned flew in the face of assuaging my emotional pain.

With this story, I plan to blog more on the topic, sin, so unpopular, in common parlance, yet so divisive of wholeness.

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